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Speech

Wellington College Old Boys' Association, Auckland

Issue date: 
Thursday, 3 September 1998
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

It is a pleasure to be here, and to see that the Association in Auckland is in such good heart. Some here I have seen quite frequently over the years, because we've had some reunions. Others I haven't seen for many years, but some of you are still recognisable - which is encouraging. I am sure that on occasions like this, all of us recall a host of names and faces, many with great fondness, because the associations, the influences, all that the school was and meant, have had a lot to do with who and what we are now.

So please let me take what has been a rare opportunity to pay tribute to the school, to contemporaries and above all to teachers: Hogben was my headmaster, a man of high principle, who was and sometimes still is treated badly; Brodie and Cuddie were magnificent men of the old school; Quartermain, who was to become well known for his work in and about the Antarctic, imparted a love of literature; McAloon taught us that there are other cultures too. Those were some of my great teachers. There were many others too.

Someone wrote that: " There is a wonderful recipe for ensuring children succeed. It's called good teaching." We had that. But I think we let the school down badly.

Mary and I go for a walk every morning we can, out the back gate of Government House, up to the top of Mount Victoria, and back through the old school; or rather through what little is left of it. Wellington College was one of the first victims of educational lowest common denominator egalitarianism, and Ministry of Works vandalism. We let that magnificent War Memorial Hall, and the whole splendid faade, be demolished and replaced by a misaligned and impractical monstrosity. The wonderful stained glass window is all but lost to sight. Other schools rallied and saved their buildings from destruction. We didn't. But I hope that one day, before long, we will put that right, and give the school an Assembly Hall worthy of the great school it is.

I have been fortunate to see something of the school as it is today, of today's boys and their achievements, so well exemplified by Chris Lendrum here, and I am proud to declare myself an old boy. And I am proud too, and say so to every appropriate audience, to be the third old boy to hold my present office. Actually, it comes to four if you count Sir Denis Blundell, who stayed for only a short time before being sent to board at Waitaki to prepare him for the rigours of life at Cambridge University.

I was asked not to give a solemn speech but rather to be light and entertaining That, however, is a tall order for a former Judge, because entertainment value is not one of the prerequisites of judicial or even vice-regal appointment. Besides, Judges are often at their funniest when they don't mean to be.

One of my favourite stories, which I am assured is true - which means, sadly, that it is most unlikely - was about the Judge who finished a case on Friday, and said he would work on it when he went home to the country and give judgement on Monday morning ...... ("Fax it up My Lord?")

Then there is the tale of another Judge, who must have been greatly provoked when counsel solemnly announced, "My Lord, this case concerns roulette, which is a game of chance played with cards." And the Judge said: "Balls".

Those of you who were at the school's 125th anniversary dinner will surely remember that unfortunate fellow who tried to tell what he obviously thought was joke after joke until he was finally silenced by his audience. That's a risk I am not going to run and so I hope you will bear with me if I take a different tack and talk about Wellington College's most distinguished old boy, Bernard Freyberg, and the unforgettable experiences I had earlier this year at Gallipoli, in the Somme in the north of France, and in Crete, when in a sense, I followed in Freyberg's footsteps. He became Governor-General when I was at college - we lined the Government House drive to welcome him on his arrival, and he was a frequent visitor. I am sure he impressed us all.

Freyberg was born in England, but his parents came out to Wellington when he was two and he began at Wellington College when he was eight. That wasn't because he was a child prodigy, in fact he was no great scholar at all. It was just that the school went down to the standards in those days. JP Firth was headmaster, and inspired him, as he did so many. Freyberg stayed there until he was almost 16, but still only in the 4th form, and went on to become a dentist, working first in Morrinsville, where he was commissioned in the Territorials, and then in Levin, before he broke free from the constraints of small town New Zealand, went to the United States, fought briefly in a Mexican civil war, and then at the outbreak of World War I, headed for England where he joined the Royal Naval Division with the rank of Lieutenant. He first saw service in Belgium, where he sustained the first of the nine serious wounds he was to suffer during the war. From Belgium, the Division joined the land assault on the Dardanelles. It was as they sailed north through the Greek islands that Freyberg and the quite brilliant group of Oxford scholars who had become his most unlikely friends, had the task of burying Rupert Brooke, the poet over whom LB Quartermain in his English classes 30 years later, would weep still.

You'll all know that in the 23 years he lived in New Zealand, Freyberg had become a champion swimmer. He won both the New Zealand junior title and later the senior. At Gallipoli he had a very different swim. The plan was to create a diversion at the north end of the peninsula, by putting one of Freyberg's platoons ashore to light flares so that the Turks would think the invading forces were to land there. Freyberg would not allow his men to run those risks and so he did it alone, in the dark, towing a raft, swimming for an hour and a quarter to land, lighting a flare, back into the sea to swim on to light a second and then a third, and then somehow finding his way back. He was away for almost three hours, and swam about two miles in icy cold water: as one of his men wrote at the time, only a superman could have survived. For that exploit, he was awarded the first of his three DSOs. Soon after, his unit was put ashore near Cape Hellas, at the southern end of the peninsula, as part of the British force which suffered casualties of the same enormity as the Anzacs did further north around Anzac Cove, at Lone Pine and up on Chunuk Bair. Freyberg's battalion was reduced by two thirds and he himself was badly wounded, three times.

It was at Gallipoli that, in a manner of speaking, I caught up with Freyberg. The Turkish President had invited us to pay a State Visit, and it was decided to combine that with the annual Anzac Day commemorations. New Zealand and Australia alternate responsibility for the Dawn Service at Anzac Cove, and this year, it was New Zealand's turn.

In 1914, the New Zealand Anzac contingent had left home only a little more than two months after war had begun, the largest single fighting force ever to leave this country. With the Australians they were put ashore on the narrow beach now at last known officially as Anzac Cove. One of their immediate objectives was to take the dominant height of Chunuk Bair, the key to the peninsula.

It is only when you see the terrain with your own eyes that you realise what a virtually impossible undertaking it was. Crammed onto the narrow beach, the Anzacs were confronted by high cliffs, mazes of ridges and ravines. They came under murderous fire from the Turkish defenders. 3,100 New Zealanders landed on that first Anzac Day. 1 in 5 was killed before the day was out.

After the initial landings, the campaign became one of brutal trench warfare, with the opposing troops sometimes only yards apart, of hand-to-hand physical combat, of charge and countercharge, always under withering fire. Casualties were horrific. In one overnight attack, the Otago Battalion lost 400 out of 800 men. In another attack, the Auckland Battalion lost 300 men in 20 minutes for a gain of 100 metres. The Turkish defenders suffered equally. In one charge, they lost 2,000 men. By 24 May, the no-man's land between the two front lines was so carpeted with the dead that an armistice was called so that they could be buried.

The campaign dragged on for eight months, until in December 1915, what was left of the invading force was evacuated. Of the 11,600 New Zealanders who eventually served on Gallipoli, 2,721 died on active service and 4,752 were wounded, many to die later of their wounds. It was a terrible price for a small country to pay - our total population was then only a little over 1 million.

Yet during that time, our sense of national pride and national identity was born. It was much the same for the Australians too, and for the Turks, for their commander, Kemal Ataturk, became the founder of modern Turkey. This sense of shared national pride pervaded all that we did on Anzac Day.

We arrived on the beach at Anzac Cove at about 4.30 in the morning. We had to push our way in the darkness through what seemed an endless crowd, many standing almost shoulder to shoulder, others still asleep, lying among everyone's feet. There were a few unflattering comments in Australian accents as our guide asked them to let through the Governor-General of New Zealand; but he quickly changed that.

And as soon as the Service began, with a spotlight picking out a Maori warrior, and a piper playing a lament, there was utter silence, a sea of faces all around, the only sound the sound of the waves lapping on the shore. There were between seven and ten thousand people there that morning, mostly New Zealanders and Australians, mostly young. It is a picture that will always stay with me.

There were six more services that day; at the huge Turkish memorial at Cape Hellas, at the British and French memorials; at Ataturk's own battalion memorial; at Lone Pine, where there was a very large gathering of Australians; and then finally our own on the hilltop of Chunuk Bair.

This is a legendary place. It was the key to the success of the whole campaign. There had been many attempts to take it, all ending in disastrous failure. But at dawn on 8 August 1915 Chunuk Bair was stormed. The men of the Wellington Infantry Battalion, under Colonel William Malone, were the first there. They were reinforced by the Auckland Mounted Rifles, and then replaced by the Otago Infantry Battalion and the Wellington Mounted Rifles.

From where these men were, they would have seen the ultimate objective, the Straits of the Dardanelles, below. But they got no further. For three days, under continuous fire and counter-attack, and running short of water, they clung to this small hilltop, sheltering in pitifully shallow trenches and behind the bodies of fallen comrades. Eventually they were relieved, but at what a cost.

Of the 800 Wellington soldiers, over 730 were killed or wounded. And on the stone plinth in front of the monument, are recorded the names of 852 New Zealand dead who fell there, but who have no known graves. One was just 17 years old. And all this for, really, nothing. The Turks recaptured the summit, and from then on the Allied campaign lost momentum. Four months later, it was all but over.

The Official New Zealand War History says this about Chunuk Bair:

"August 8 was a day of tragedy for New Zealand, but no day in our calendar shines with greater glory." And another historian has written: "If New Zealanders have a day that is uniquely ours, it is 8 August, 1915."

It was impossible to assess how many were at Chunuk Bair on Anzac Day this year, but again there was the same silence as there had been at Anzac Cove, and stillness even when a cold wind and rain came in; accompanied by the feeling I am sure, of 'who are we to complain or take shelter when those who fought here endured such immeasurably greater hardship'. I was immensely proud to be a New Zealander.

Five months after Gallipoli, Freyberg was in France, now a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army. His Battalion was thrown into the first battle of the Somme, and suffered the same appalling and senseless casualties that typified all of that insane campaign on the Western Front. But under Freyberg's leadership, it had its triumphs, and he for his part won his VC. Paul Freyberg's biography of his father tells of his delight at the letter of congratulations he received from JP Firth. Freyberg was wounded six times in France, and his brother Paul, serving with the 1st New Zealand Division not far from him, was killed.

By that time, in the battles around Armentires - where the mademoiselles were from - the New Zealand Division had already sustained 2,500 casualties, 400 dead, and then after that in 23 days on the Somme, we lost another 1,560 killed.

Much of the fighting was in the vicinity of a little village called Longueval which was completely destroyed. But it was rebuilt, and in France it was our first stop, for there is a New Zealand National Memorial there, and a cemetery at Caterpillar Valley where there are 125 New Zealand graves, and, most moving of all, a wall bearing the names of over 1,200 New Zealanders who have no known resting place: they just disappeared, as countless others did during those dreadful years. We laid wreathes, made speeches, and drank vin d'honneur, a celebratory glass of Lindauer provided by courtesy of our Embassy in Paris. That in fact was the pattern through the day.

Then it was onto Le Quesnoy, the scene of a most remarkable New Zealand exploit, which took place just a week before the end of the War. Le Quesnoy is a mediaeval fortress town, ringed with ramparts 60 feet high in places. The surrounding country had been cleared of German troops, but behind the walls, defending the town, were 1,200 of them, and as well a very large number of civilians. So it could not be shelled.

New Zealand ingenuity came to the fore: someone produced a long ladder. There was only one place along the walls where it was long enough. Led by a Lieutenant Averill of Christchurch, who later became a well known doctor there, the New Zealanders climbed over, one man at a time. The Germans were so taken by surprise that only a few shots were fired before the entire garrison surrendered. That event is still commemorated every year. There is a Boulevard of the New Zealanders, and a Lt. Averill School. We were met by brass bands, and marched along the Boulevard and around the ramparts, and then we stopped to lay wreaths at the place where the ladder had been put against the wall. There is a sculpted tableau of the event and a memorial with the simple words: "From the uttermost ends of the earth."

Our third destination was Arras, which had also been destroyed in the war, but has now been faithfully restored to what it once was. There were great caverns under this town, from which its early builders had taken stone for its construction. In 1916, the NZ Tunnelling Company was sent to connect these caverns, and to extend the tunnel under no-man's land and the German trenches. In April 1917, over 20,000 troops were able to enter the tunnels, and they poured from them in what was described as a 'successful' offensive: successful, though in the end it cost 160,000 allied lives.

The underground tunnels at Arras seem to have been forgotten until a couple of years ago. They are not yet open to the public, but we were taken into them, and quite astonishing they are. Our tunnellers carved place names into the walls as they went, starting with Russell, and down through Auckland, Wellington, Blenheim and so on, as far as Bluff. Names and initials are inscribed there too, there is a rather fine Maori head sculpted into the wall, and other lasting signs of the many months that our men lived and worked underground.

Driving through the gently rolling countryside of northern France, it is hard to visualise the horror of the trench warfare that turned the fields into engulfing mud and which slaughtered the youth of Europe, and our young men too, from the uttermost ends of the earth. New Zealand casualties in France were far higher than at Gallipoli - 13,250 died, another 35,000 were wounded - while our casualties in the whole of the war were higher in proportion to our population than in any other allied country.

Freyberg became Governor-General in June 1946, not long after his brilliant success as commander of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Western Desert and in Italy. But before those campaigns, in which he achieved a reputation as one of the greatest of the Allied desert tacticians, there had been the disasters of Greece and Crete. After World War I, he was, over his continual protests, virtually invalided out of the regular army, but at the beginning of World War II, New Zealand called him back to lead the NZEF.

The decision to send allied troops to Greece was a strategic blunder, militarily, for they were hopelessly outnumbered in men and equipment. As the German army overran the country, it fell largely to Freyberg and the Australian commander to extricate as many men as they could. As it was, most of their equipment and 14,000 men were left behind. From there, many of the survivors went to Crete, and Freyberg was put in command. With battle-weary men, with scant equipment, on a vulnerable island with no air cover, the situation was soon as impossible as it had been in Greece.

The New Zealanders were located near the town of Xania and the nearby air field at Mleme, and that is where we went, with the Chief of the General Staff and a contingent of troops from the Sinai, on 22 May. Every year at that time they commemorate the Battle of Crete, for it was then that thousands of German paratroopers dropped out of the sky, many literally on top of the New Zealanders. They were at first repulsed, and so bloodily that the Germans never tried a major operation of that kind again, but in the end the German assault proved irresistible, with the defenders having to make their way across the mountains to the south coast, where a little over half the original force was successfully evacuated. Over 12,000 were left behind, taken prisoner or sheltered by the Cretans, a fiercely proud and independent and fierce people, who refused to submit to the Germans, conducting a constant guerrilla war despite brutal reprisals. There is still controversy about the defence of Crete, but none of that featured in the wonderfully warm welcome we received from the people in the towns and villages we visited. There was a wonderful mix of the solemn and the boisterous, with priests, freedom fighters, raki, bouquets and wreaths.

The commemorations began with wreath laying at the memorial at Galatas, a hilltop village, where there had been a particularly ferocious hand to hand battle between New Zealanders and Germans. It overlooks the Mleme airfield, the Germans' prime objective, and around which much of the fiercest fighting took place. It was there that Charles Upham won his first Victoria Cross.

Later in the day there was a service at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's beautifully maintained cemetery at Suvla Bay. There are many New Zealand graves there, some identified, but many others for soldiers whom it has not been possible to name. The following morning, there was another ceremony at a small village where the focus was not so much on the allied soldiers, but on the villagers, many from one family, who had been killed in reprisal for an attack on a German unit.

Finally, on the last evening, there was an extremely well-organised and quite dramatic commemoration at what is to be developed as a national memorial complex, on a hilltop looking out over the airport and the coastline where so much of the campaign was fought. They want to re-locate here the war museum on the Hania waterfront where there is a collection of objects and photographs with a disproportionate Australian emphasis, which we tried to rectify a little by presenting a complete New Zealand battledress of the period.

This job of mine is interesting and rewarding, and the opportunity to undertake what was really a wartime pilgrimage was an unforgettable experience. The affection for New Zealand and its people that we met wherever we went, in Turkey, in northern France, in Crete, made me proud to be a New Zealander, and following in the footsteps of Bernard Freyberg made me even more proud to be an old boy of New Zealand's finest school.

We all follow in other's footsteps. We've been pretty fortunate in those who have gone before us. I hope Chris' generation will think the same of us.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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